How often have you read a story or listened to an orator wandering off into the weeds, so to speak, and take forever to get to the topic at hand? Sometimes, the wandering is just that, aimless and without form.
In the grasp of someone able to wander into the weeds who can take you for a tour through the weeds and back to the original topic at hand while demonstrating the weeds were integral to the topic, you’re in the company of a skilled and eloquent storyteller.
The trip into the weeds is known as digression, a temporary shift from the main subject. The skilled storyteller can use this literary tool as a stylistic or rhetorical device to move the topic along.
The Roman statesman Cicero was a master of digression with his ability to shift from the question or issue at hand to a more generalized topic. His digressions always turned out to have a direct bearing on the issue at hand but he arrived at it in a round about manner with the use of digression.
Digressions can serve to provide background, illustrate a point through example or anecdote or even to inject satire into the topic. Stylistic devices are often used in digression. A variety of these techniques give auxiliary meaning, idea or feel to the topic by employing techniques like similes, metaphors, personification, imagery, paradox, irony etc.
Rhetorical devices are techniques used to convey meaning with the goal of persuading the listener/reader to consider a topic from a different perspective. They are often used to evoke an emotional response
Classical rhetoric saw digression used regularly.. The topic and the need for attention to the topic would be established and then the author would digress to seemingly disconnected content before coming back around to the main theme
Many of the great writers of the 18th and 19th century employed digression to move their plots along. For example in Henry Fielding’s “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” Fielding used many asides and digressive statements throughout his work that formed a side-fiction. They often show up in the work of Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy all used digression to move their plots along.
In the 20th century, postmodern fiction writers used digression to distance the reader from fiction and creating a sense of play like John Fowles did in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.
In modern speech, many people will wander off into the weeds and then acknowledge having done so by stating “but I digress” to indicate they are returning to the main topic. An artful digression doesn’t need to be announced, it merely needs to be brought back around to the topic at hand with the link becoming evident to the listener.
Frequently though, the technique has been poorly applied and those trips into the weeds are aimless wandering off track. Eloquence is a skill not easily learned it seems. I should work try to learn it some day.